I stumbled across her about two years ago, when a detour on I-17 dumped me onto the slatternly mess that is Washington Street at Black Canyon Highway. Stuck in traffic slowed to a crawl, I was distracted by her bosomy façade and the wide, corset-like turret she wore wrapped around her shapely middle. I couldn't stop staring and pulled over to gape at her ravaged beauty.
I took to making my own detours after that, whenever I found myself near this disreputable part of town, to park across the street from the blank, one-eyed stare peeking out from behind a massive wall of red brick chimney, one of the house's few remaining original details.
I named her Miriam Hopkins, and called her that until I learned that she is actually the Norton House. It was renowned architect W. R. Norton who designed and built her. (Norton, a transplanted Bostonian who came here to recover from pneumonia in the early 20th century, is best known as the founder of Sunnyslope, which he named). For years, architecture fans called her the Frank Luke House, as in the guy after whom Luke Air Force Base is named, mistaking her for a home a ways down the road. Built sometime between 1898 and 1906, the house is one of very few homes left from a subdivision known as the West Capital Addition, a neighborhood of similarly stately structures that are now mostly gone, victims of the wrecking ball or arson. Norton House herself appears to have caught fire at one time; her brick and wood construction is charred with black soot all around her lower floor.
W.R. Norton House
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It's clear I'm not the only one who's having a love affair with the anguished remains of this decrepit beauty because someone's slowly been restoring what's left of her for a couple of years now. That's a loud testament to how loved any old building is in this tear-down town, especially when one considers that Miriam — I mean Norton — is a shell of a building that sits practically on top of a noisy freeway in a destitute part of Phoenix. But what's left of her sits proudly on a pair of lots at 2222 West Washington, wearing what looks to me like a startled expression as she gapes cockeyed at traffic headed downtown. I think she's surprised at her own good fortune and, because I'm the sort of person who likes to imagine what inanimate objects might say if they could speak, I can hear her saying, "I can't believe I'm still here."
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Neither can I.
I thought of the Norton House, and how she's still there, when I read that it was time to nominate stuff for the annual Governor's Heritage Preservation Awards. Each year, the State Historic Preservation Office hands out 10 awards to individuals and projects that preserve Arizona's historic treasures (via a nomination form at azpreservation.com, through April 4). Past winners include the Westward Ho (for "adaptive reuse" in 2005), the Gold Spot Marketing Center rehab in 2004, and the creepy L. Ron Hubbard House on Camelback last year. Because one of the categories honors "restoration, rehabilitation, and stabilization" of old houses, I thought I could nominate Norton House as a nod to the nice people who were saving her (I like to think of them as a hip, middle-aged couple whose great-grandparents once owned it and are saving it from demolition for sentimental purposes). There's no prize money awarded in this program; winners get a certificate signed by the governor, which won't buy you a new roof. But every bit of encouragement helps when you're rebuilding a ruin.
"They certainly are taking their time about it," Eric Vondy said when I told him I thought Norton House deserved a Governor's Award. Eric is an officer of the Preservation Office who's shares my affection for Norton House. "It's privately owned and not listed in the National Register, and slowly being rehabbed by people who aren't consulting with us, so I can't tell you a whole lot about this property," he told me. And the people who own her don't seem all that interested in revealing Norton House's secrets; none of my calls asking why she caught fire or what will be done with her once she's restored was returned.
I don't care. I like my story about the people who are bringing Norton House back to life. I like to think they love her so much that they won't care about the noisy traffic swooshing past, or about the nonstop tagging she'll endure as a resident of "the bad part of town." They'll finish restoring her, move in, and raise the fifth generation of their Phoenix family in the same house where their grandfather was born. Even if they don't — even if whoever owns my Miriam finishes her and sells her to the highest bidder — I won't care. They deserve an award just for keeping her standing.